How to talk to your child about COVID-19

How to talk to your child about COVID-19
Children can sense uncertainty during troubled times. Calm your youngster's fears by talking gently – but honestly – about the pandemic. (UAB)

In times of uncertainty, children look to their parents for guidance. As COVID-19 continues to sweep through the U.S., children and their parents have been exposed to a lot of new information that has increased anxiety.

Parents may struggle with what to say and how to appropriately answer their child’s questions during the global pandemic. It is important that adults talk to children about positive preventive measures and how to deal with their fears, and give them some control over their risk of infection. Doing so can help control the spread of the virus, and hopefully alleviate some of their anxiety.

Candice Dye, M.D., a pediatrician in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Pediatric Primary Care Clinic, explains how to have challenging conversations about COVID-19 with children.

Start the conversation

Dye encourages parents to initiate the conversation with children about the tough topic at hand and ask them what they know and how it makes them feel.

By doing so, you are able to gauge what they understand and what they may have heard or seen. You can then guide the conversation about what happened in a way that is tailored to their developmental understanding. That helps you as an adult know how much information to provide.

For parents who are worried about saying the right thing, Dye reassures that it is OK, even if you do not always choose the perfect words.

“As a parent, you do the best that you can, and sometimes you don’t need a lot of details,” Dye said. “Often, we as adults don’t understand why something happened, and it’s a good opportunity to ask your child what they understand and know.”

Dye explains that some children really want to talk about their feelings and others do not – both are perfectly normal responses. However, parents need to continue to explain to their children that they are always available to talk with them. Watch for clues that they may want to talk. According to the National Association of School Psychologists’ guide for talking to children about COVID-19, it is typical for younger children to ask a few questions, return to their previous activities and then come to ask more questions.

Emphasize what is important

There is a lot of misinformation out there that could cause elevated anxiety. Parents should sort carefully through fact and fiction, choosing key points to discuss with their child about what to do. Dye cautions parents to be candid with their child.

It is important to avoid stereotyping any one group of people as responsible for the virus. When discussing the stories that children may read about COVID-19 on the internet, parents should stress that those stories may be based on rumors and inaccurate information. It is also important to remember that information designed for adults can make children anxious or confused, so parents should limit television viewing or media about COVID-19 that can increase anxiety. Instead, they should play games or engage in other activities.

“Don’t lie to your child,” Dye said. “I don’t think you have to soften information, but you don’t always have to go into every single detail – just be age- and developmentally appropriate. In recognizing what your children can understand, it’s important not to not sugarcoat the information at hand or make up something.”

Children will react and follow the parent’s verbal and nonverbal reactions. What is said about COVID-19 can either increase or decrease a child’s anxiety.

Parents should change their explanations depending on the child’s age. Early elementary school children need brief information that should balance facts with reassurances that their homes are safe and that adults will keep them healthy. Washing hands and other health measures should be explained as well as what to do when there is no soap available. Older children will be more vocal in asking questions and need help separating reality from rumor and fantasy. As for upper middle school and high school students, they can discuss things in an adult manner. Direct them to appropriate sources of COVID-19 facts. This can help give them a sense of control when it comes to their health.

Dye also stresses that it is key for parents to listen closely and answer their child’s specific question. She recommends that parents:

  • Answer questions truthfully.
  • Share what they think is contextually important for their child to know.
  • Use as an opportunity to explain what they want them to learn from the situation.
  • Explain how to apply lessons to their own lives and experiences.

Reassure their feelings

While every child responds differently to illness, most may experience fear and may need extra attention from you so that they can talk about their concerns, fears and questions. Reassure them that no emotions are wrong, Dye says.

“We all have emotions, and it’s OK for kids to express that and for it to be a normal part of their response. Let them know that they can always come to you with anything, because you really want to keep that line of communication open,” Dye said. “It’s OK for you as the parent to share your feelings, too.

“It’s key to let children know that they are not wrong or in trouble for feeling scared or sad, but it’s our job as parents to provide comfort and safety for them. Let that child know they can always come to you for anything. Tell them you are their safe person, and that you will always do everything you can to keep them safe and loved. They want and need to know that they are safe.”

Know the symptoms of COVID-19 and how to lessen the spread

Dye recommends that parents take an opportunity to teach their children how to apply new information. By knowing the symptoms and preventive measures, children can feel a sense of control that will lessen anxiety.

Practicing good hygiene is a series of simple steps. Children should wash their hands multiple times a day for at least 20 seconds, cover their mouths with a tissue when they sneeze or cough, practice doing fist or elbow bumps, and try not to share food or drink with others. This helps give them control over disease spread. Additionally, parents should encourage children to eat well, get enough sleep and exercise regularly.

While the incubation of COVID-19 varies on a person-by-person basis, these symptoms can typically appear up until 14 days after exposure: fever, cough and shortness of breath. Parents should stress to the child that the severity of these symptoms can vary and, if they are practicing good hygiene, they can help lessen the spread of the disease.

Know your child

Parents know best their own child’s typical behavior, so Dye notes that parents should keep a close eye out to ensure that their children are coping in ways normal to them.

“Know your child and if their response to any tough news is appropriate for how they normally respond,” Dye said. “If there’s an escalated event, is their reaction in line with what you expect from them?”

It is important for parents to keep to a regular schedule, since this can be reassuring. Encourage students to keep up with their schoolwork and other activities, but do not push if they seem overwhelmed.

For more information about talking to your child about COVID-19, click here.

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